Posted on | July 6, 2013 | No Comments
My great-great grandfather, Patrick Casey, was born in 1845, the first year the potato crop failed. Summer was always the hungry time, when people had eaten all of the potatoes from the previous autumn, and lived on foraged roots and nettles waiting for the new potatoes, which were dug up in August. The new potatoes came up plentiful that year, but in the days before the bigger October harvest a foul stench wafted over the countryside- the potatoes were rotting in the ground. Whatever could be dug up was black and putrid. Farmers went to look at the remaining new potatoes in their store houses, only to discover that these were now rotting as well. The disaster would repeat itself for the next five years, during which time one quarter of the population of Ireland died or emigrated. We will never know the extent of the suffering of the Caseys, nor that of their neighbors, but we know they were not evicted from their home, and we can assume that they did not starve. The family continued to grow through the years of famine. Patrick was joined by his brother Thomas, born in 1846, and little sisters Honora, born 1848, and Mary, born in 1851.
Patrick’s father, Michael Casey, was a tenant farmer in Pollagh, in the parish of Killevane, in what is now part of County Limerick. The townland was about a forty minute walk from the main street of the nearest town, Newport, in County Tipperary. Michael Casey, like other Catholics, owned no land of his own, but worked 20 acres scattered around the townland in partnership with two brothers (or a father and son) named Cosgrave. The system of working land in common was an Irish tradition predating the Normans, and was known as rundale, a cooperative system, opaque to the landlord, in which tenants leased the land together and shared in both the crop and the rent owed.
The covert economy of rundale was a source of frustration to Anglo landowners, who could never be certain of who their tenants were. In some cases, a landlord would evict a tenant only to discover that he had subleased a different piece of his land down the road from a relative or neighbor. Partnership farming could take many forms, but always consisted of pooling all land in common so that the partners shared in the crop from a large parcel that could have both poor and high quality soil within it. Contracting land agreements between tenants were not measured in area but in use. For example, agreements could be made in ‘sums’ or ‘collops’ which constituted the grazing area required to support a cow, or two yearling calves, or six sheep. Naturally these informal divisions had no demarcating fences. Landholding in this way formed a patchwork of fields and pastures, whose logic was unclear to anyone but the tenants themselves. Michael not only shared in the Cosgrave’s lease but in turn subleased one acre to a man named Michael Hickey. Completely encircling one of Michael’s shared land parcels was another good sized plot (15 acres) leased to a family named Coffey.
Ashroe, Limerick, a few minutes’ walk from the Caseys’ land
Rundale was of a piece with the clandestine world of the Irish townland. Long before the Conquest, Irish peasants lived in bailia, settlements without legal standing, or even an identifiable village organized around a church steeple, main street, or village green. Instead, the townland was a cluster of families in an area bounded by hedges, woodland, or rivers. The townland did not reflect any claim to rights or civic identity on the part of its occupants. Its social hierarchy and fluid landholding was invisible to outsiders, as it was based on relationships, its contracts and accounting unwritten. After the Conquest, the opacity of the townland would become a tool of passive resistance for native Irish against Anglo Protestant authority.
Like the townland, rundale landholding formed a moral economy not captured in any landowner’s survey. The ambiguities of rundale may have been to Michael’s advantage when (not) paying his taxes. We know that the land that Michael Casey and the Cosgroves worked was crop land, not grazing land, as the latter did not attract tithes paid to the Church of Ireland. The Catholic occupier of the land, not the Protestant landlord, paid this tax. Not surprisingly, this was a source of great resentment to the tithed. Both Michael Casey and the Cosgraves were on record as taxpayers to the Church of Ireland in the Tithe Applotment books. It is not clear from official land surveys post-famine whether or not Michael Casey was a junior partner of the Cosgraves; as their sublessee, he had a bigger share of the land they rented in common (at least, his portion of the land was assessed as more valuable). But according to the Tithe Applotment books, Michael was the official holder of a mere nine roods (a rood was ~¼ of an acre), which would have designated him as a ‘laborer’ as opposed to the land he held in common with the Cosgraves, which at 20 acres between them would have designated all as ‘farmers.’
The ultimate lessor of all of this land was a Mrs. Rebecca Benn, widow of John Benn Esq, who owned a large chunk of the parish of Killevane. It appears that Michael also rented his home from Mrs. Benn; the house sat on a piece of sublet land located next to the grounds of Dromore House, so he probably worked in some capacity on her property.
The Caseys and the Cosgraves were fortunate in that Mrs. Benn was a member of the local gentry, not an absentee aristocrat living in London and leaving his land in the hands of middlemen who squeezed Irish tenants unmercifully, often tripling the rent above what was received by the ultimate landowner sitting in his townhouse in Belgravia. Having a small local landowner was not always an advantage, however; the Caseys were lucky compared to many neighbors who were evicted even before the famine. North Tipperary gentry may not have been uncaring absentee landlords, but they were people of moderate means with small estates, and many were forced for economic survival into converting arable acreage to more profitable grazing land for cattle in the 1840s, even before the Poor Law rates and unpaid rents of the famine years drove them to throw their tenants off the land.
Cereal cultivation had come with the arrival of the Protestant landowners to North Tipperary after the Conquest, and by the 1840s local farmers were growing barley, oats and wheat. A poor cottier living on less than an acre was however entirely dependent on the potato along with the pig he raised to sell (known as ‘the rent’)–who also lived on potatoes. The Caseys of Pollagh, sharing in 20 acres, grew something other than potatoes, even if it were grown to sell and pay the rent.
If the Caseys had no potatoes to eat, and could not sell as much of their crop as in years past, we can assume that Mrs. Benn was willing to forgo some or all of the rent payment, as she did not take part in the widescale evictions of tenant farmers that occurred in the famine years. At the height of the famine, the eviction rate in Tipperary was the highest in Ireland. Maybe Mr. Benn had left his widow well provided for, or maybe Mrs. Benn did not want to evict the young family living next door on her property, whom she had perhaps come to know…
Posted on | June 28, 2013 | 2 Comments
When I started working at a horse rescue earlier this year, my husband put a book in my hands. Ethics Into Action is not just for animal lovers but for anyone who has ever felt the urge to right a wrong. The book is an account of the life and work of Henry Spira, who did more to help animals in a period of about fifteen years than any animal advocate or welfare organization did in the previous two hundred.
Henry Spira was the son of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe, arriving in New York on the eve of World War Two. His father bullied his wife and children, and Henry, who as a young boy was unable to protect his mother, made it his life’s project to stand up for those who could not defend themselves. Henry left home as a teenager and joined the merchant marine. Throughout the 1950s and 60s he worked on the margins of various social causes and political movements- Zionism, Socialism, labor, and civil rights, eventually going to college and teaching in an inner city school.
Henry never fit in anywhere. He lived alone in New York–until he adopted a cat. He loved the cat, and, in Henry’s words, “I began to wonder about the appropriateness of cuddling one animal while sticking a knife and fork into another.” He read Peter Singer’s essay on animal liberation first published in the New York Review of Books in 1973. He saw intense, systematic, socially sanctioned suffering, and victims unable to organize to defend themselves. Henry had found his cause.
In 1974, he founded Animal Rights International. ARI consisted solely of Henry and an occasional helper. Over the next twenty years, Henry almost singlehandedly (leveraging larger animal welfare groups as he needed) stopped the widespread use of unnecessary animal testing in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and consumer products and other needlessly cruel practices in the food industry, such as face branding cattle.
How did he do it?
Henry was an acute observer, and his experience in activism taught him what led to real change and what didn’t. He did not follow the model of the socialist and workers’ groups he once frequented. A few of his tactics came from successes he observed in the civil rights movement. Some of Henry’s key principles, which are adaptable to any cause:
1) Do something. Don’t just fund raise, or ‘raise awareness.’ Organizations that raise funds and awareness simply increase the size of the organization, which in turn increase the need for funds. Henry’s experience with organized labor made him aware of how large organizations become corrupted and lose purpose. The point is not to perpetuate the organization, but to do something.
2) Bring about change one step at a time. In other words, pick a fight you can win. “Select a target on the basis of vulnerability to public opinion, intensity of suffering, and opportunity for change.” You cannot get all Americans to stop eating meat, but you can rid slaughterhouses of an inhumane practice that would outrage people if they knew about it. Henry was a believer in gradual change–even the smallest victory was real if it could make the world a kinder place for animals.
3) Stay in it until victory. Too many people march around with placards (to ‘raise awareness’) only to give up and move on to another thing (often because the cause is not winnable- see #2). Henry would pick one specific issue (Museum of Natural History using cats in unnecessary research) and stuck with a sustained campaign until he won or got his opponent to the negotiating table. He would spend months, often years, trying to engage and then negotiating with his adversary.
4) Keep your eyes on the prize. Radical animal rights groups who break into labs don’t accomplish much, except draw attention to themselves (which Henry would say was the real objective, as opposed to helping animals).
5) Once you get your opponents to the table, treat them fairly. Henry was willing to compromise, offering face-saving and cost-effective solutions. Henry was an adept practitioner of what is now known as “reintegrative shaming“ as well as working with opponents privately rather than attacking them in public. Using these tactics, Henry was able to extract concessions from large pharmaceutical corporations on their research and testing protocols. He did not eliminate testing overnight, but started a years’ long process that eventually developed alternatives to many tests, which no animal advocates before him had been able to do. Being hostile to an opponent may feel good, but it does not win people over. Henry’s cooperative and pragmatic approach, while the reason for his success, was also why he was maligned by more radical groups such as PETA, who accused him of cooperating with the enemy.
5) If you can’t get them to the table, escalate through public shaming. This is really a last ditch scenario, as advertising and other media cost money.
6) Don’t assume legal action can solve the problem. Henry had the typical outsider’s suspicion of ‘the system’ and viewed the law as a way of upholding the status quo. Political or legislative lobbying also becomes a substitute for action.
You don’t have to be a militant animal rights activist to be inspired by this book. Henry’s tactics can be applied to any cause. Henry’s story teaches us that the gap between you and me and Nelson Mandela is not that great. You don’t need money, power, or celebrity to fix something wrong in the world, you just have to want to do it.
This book may shame you into action. I know what to do–I just have to find the courage to go out and do it. And now, so do you.
Posted on | February 19, 2013 | No Comments
I recently started working as a volunteer at a horse rescue here in Connecticut. The barn has about a dozen unwanted draft horses salvaged from feedlot auctions. Many of them are workhorses from Amish country and know how to pull a cart or a plow. The rescue hopes to turn them into lesson horses, therapy horses, or, if they not sound enough for work, as companion animals for other horses.
All afternoon I mucked out stalls, stacked hay bales, and filled water buckets in a below-freezing horse barn. I made numerous trips to a manure pile pushing a wheelbarrow wobbling over uneven frozen mud. I came home tired, sore, and smelly. I had a blast.
It occurred to me this was the first meaningful work that I had done in years. Work that had tangible results (I could see the clean stall) and a purpose (the rescue relies on all volunteer labor). It was also work that I was able to do without any politics or controversy. Unlike working in an investment bank, no one disputed who was going to fill up which water bucket; no one stood next to your just-filled bucket and claimed your work as their own; no one emptied your just-filled bucket and then refilled the bucket, saying you had not done it right; no one debated about the process controls and regulations around filling up the buckets, taking out measuring sticks to measure how far from the lip of the bucket you’d filled.
My employer has just announced cost reductions that will eliminate about a third of us. This follows six white-knuckle lay-off rounds since 2008. People are getting laid off everywhere in my business. The majority of us let go will probably never work in finance again—the jobs aren’t there. Over half a million financial services jobs have disappeared since 2008. Many people were hired back in 2009-2010, but they are now on the chopping block again as big banks move out of prop trading and shrink their balance sheets to comply with regulatory capital rules. When I see the magnitude of the expected job losses, I wonder what will happen to us.
Even in good times, many of us were never that thrilled to work with spreadsheets, but were lured by the money and the opportunity to work with smart people. Now that we are faced with being cut loose, and facing a future outside the financial world, most of us are asking themselves the same questions: What is meaningful work? Is doing what I love a viable option? Will I earn enough to pay back the investment in training? Will I ever be able to afford to retire?
I love working with horses, so this week’s idea is becoming a horse dentist. Laugh if you want, but there is no need for a D.V.M. (a 4 year program costing ~$200,000) and, unlike a farrier, the horse dentist doesn’t need the upper body strength of an Olympic shot putter.
It’s not surprising that I want to work with animals. My female friends and colleagues looking for their next career are all contemplating caring professions: teaching, social work, psychotherapy, physical therapy, yoga instruction, career coaching. This is probably in reaction to having spent most of our adult lives working in the macho culture of Wall Street. Horse dentistry is also a caring profession, and better than the above options for a misanthrope like myself because I won’t have to listen to the incessant chatter of my clients.
What is interesting about the new careers most of my friends have considered is that (with the exception of teaching) none of them require nearly the same degree of education or professional qualifications as what we are doing now. Partly this is due to our age and circumstances. We no longer have the luxury of medical school, or, in my case, vet school–we are middle aged and need to start earning soon. The other characteristic these jobs have in common is that they are jobs that cannot be outsourced. Many of them are not even professions but trades.
It is interesting I don’t know of any men thinking this way. Not a single man I work with has talked to me about another career outside of finance, much less downshifting to a more satisfying lower paid job–something that could even be more fun, like building bicycles or making furniture. Are they as Hanna Rosin suggests in her book The End of Men, unadaptable, unwilling to consider lower paid work, even if the Wall Street jobs disappear? Or is this just a recycling of the female ‘opt-out revolution’ while the men start their own businesses or get hired by hedge funds?
It has been said that the dot-com boom can be traced back to the recession of the early 90s, which shed so many corporate jobs. All that talent had to go somewhere, and it created an entirely new industry. I would expect something similar to happen now. That supposes, however, that the people leaving finance have the incentives to start something new and enterprising. Where will that talent flow to? Hedge funds cannot possibly absorb all the talent that is being sidelined. There will undoubtedly be new industries and new ideas coming from these laid-off brains.
At the same time I wonder: will all these forty and fifty year old yoga instructors find clients? Will the newly certified teachers find schools? Are there enough insured bad knees out there to absorb all these physiotherapists? I don’t want to think about whether there will be enough horses out there with equine malocclusion…
I would like to think that whatever people seek it is meaningful work they enjoy. I somehow don’t think that the next new idea will make people as much money, the world is just too competitive (and any new industry or technology will not be able to build barriers to entry using specific credentials and connections as effectively as the old line Wall Street firms had). The rest of us too old to be a part of it may end up working in trades. Maybe this is the beginning of a societal shift, let’s call it The New Humility. We will have to wait to see the shape of this trend, how many of the people downshifting are older, or are women. I will be awaiting this with interest from my desk at the bank, wondering whether the day will come when I will no longer be reviewing spreadsheets but peering into a horse’s mouth.
Posted on | June 4, 2012 | No Comments
This evening I am going for a walk in Paris. I am mapping a tour for a friend who has never been there. She wants me to show her the ‘real’ Paris, far away from tourists. But she will be a tourist, stuck in that familiar trope of wanting an ‘authentic’ experience.
The tourist Paris is plenty fun for a first timer, but no matter. I am planning a walk of side streets, North African bath houses, ancient Roman amphitheaters, 18th century chocolatiers, Chinese bowling alleys, and taxidermists. It has been an entertaining couple of hours. Aided by the photo street views from my trusty online Pages Jaunes, I can follow the walking tour as I map it. I am back in Paris, prowling my favorite neighborhoods.
It is doubly enjoyable to be doing this tonight, since I am planning a trip to Paris myself in the fall. I can indulge not only in nostalgia but anticipation. My mother and I are spending a few days there in October for no purpose except to wander the streets and indulge in a little leche-vitrine. I have not been to Paris for many years, and I can think of no better way to return to the city than with the person who first took me there and taught me to love it.
My mother first went to Paris with my father in 1966, and can remember the by-gone Paris of haute cuisine and bad mattresses, where the casual traveler never saw children in the street, and where all the young women looked fabulously chic, even if they were just stepping out to the bakery. She tells me about eating onion soup in the old Les Halles market at 4 am.
The ‘real’ Paris is difficult to convey to a visitor who doesn’t speak French. So much of the pleasure of living in Paris is found in movies, theater, newspapers, and, of course, conversations. If you arrive in Paris without knowing anyone, it is easy to stay that way unless you make a big effort. I came to make friends in the city over time, but I know Paris really well because I was a student and spent a lot of my abundant free time walking and exploring on my own. The city became my companion, and I grew to love it like a person.
Although I lived there for only two years in total, I was also a student of France, and spent a lot more time in Paris in my head. As I walk around my real Paris, it is a palimpsest of the Paris(es) I know from books. I can retrace the steps of Rastignac, Marcel, and Nana. In the streets of the eastern sections of the city, I can picture the barricades of 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1870. When I walk along the Quai d’Orléans of Ile St. Louis, I can see through a doorway of a hôtel particulier into the opium den frequented by Charles Baudelaire and his pal Honoré Daumier.
It is hard to name my favorite places in Paris, since there are so many. Because I was a student there, I think I would have to say that I miss its libraries most of all: the old Bibliothèque Nationale, with its long wood reading tables and green lamps; the medieval Bibliothèque Ste. Geneviève, the library of Erasmus, and its tiny secret library-inside-the-library, the Fonds Jacques Doucet, with its high-ceilinged reading room encircled by catwalks and rolling ladders, and tall windows that offered a view of a walled garden; the grand siècle Bibliothèque Mazarine, where Proust was employed, although he seldom bothered to show up.
There are so many other places: the ancient Roman arena tucked behind the porte cochère of an apartment building; the green market on the Rue de Buci, the Fontaine de l’Observatoire and its green copper turtles; the waterfalls of the Buttes de Chaumont…
There was a Japanese movie some years ago in which recently deceased people found themselves in a waiting room where their souls were being processed before entering heaven. Heaven was a single happy memory re-lived forever. The newly-dead have to choose a memory before they vanish into the next world, taking with them only that memory to experience over and over for eternity. The film of course points out the richness of life, because how can anyone single out the very best moment? Life is filled with them. Paris is like that. If someone asked me choose one memory of Paris, or a place, I would not know what to pick.
My best memories of Paris have the quality of dreams—did that really happen to me?
I can remember going to a piano concert a hospital, of all places. It was a beautiful 19th century hospital, and I remember its highly polished wooden floors.
I had a drawing teacher who sent me all over the city in search of subject matter. One of the more bizarre excursions was to the old Natural History museum in the Jardin des Plantes, to draw dinosaur bones. The Jardin des Plantes had been Lamarck’s laboratory, and the old museum still contained its original collection: shelf after shelf of animal parts pickled in jars.
I recall being woken very early on a Sunday morning by an organ grinder playing to an empty street right under my bedroom window. I threw open the window and told him to shut up or move on. He flipped me the bird and cursed me out to the tune of a valse musette.
I remember going out with my Irish friend Fiona, tagging along with a group of her Corsican friends. After a tour of the Corsican bars, it was about 5 in the morning, and one of the Corsicans shimmied up a tree in a public park and came down with his arms filled with lilacs. We drove to Vincennes in a little Peugeot overflowing with flowers. We went to a bakery and bought fresh warm croissants, and ate them watching the sun come up over the Château de Vincennes.
It’s hard to share this kind of deep love for a place, but I hope the walk I have planned for my friend shows her something. I am confident it will be the first of many visits for her, and she will begin constructing her own Paris of the mind. My mother, who has loved Paris for almost 50 years, has no doubt constructed something of her own palimpsest-Paris of memories. It will be great to compare our cities.
Posted on | May 6, 2012 | No Comments
I am reading Thinking the Twentieth Century, by my old teacher, Tony Judt. There will be no more books from Tony, who died in 2010 from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Thinking was dictated to Tim Snyder and takes the form of conversations between them, so you can really hear his voice on the page. But in conversation Tony sounded much the way he does in print: Complex ideas were taken apart and examined with elegance and precision. I have met few people who come close to Tony’s laser-like brilliance.
I was one of Tony’s students and graduate assistants at NYU in the early 1990s, when he was still relatively unknown but highly regarded. This was before he became a public intellectual, writing for the New York Review of Books, getting in the news for his controversial views on Israel, or guest hosting for Charlie Rose (!). When I arrived at NYU, Tony was my de facto advisor because I was studying modern France. Tony’s interests had by this time strayed far from France–he had become fascinated by Eastern Europe, and had just started research on a general history of Europe that became Postwar.
None of the eulogies really got across that Tony was a rough guy. He attacked colleagues when he believed they were wrong, and attacks in the name of intellectual integrity was (I think) an acceptable channel for a lot of innate aggression. But the ruffian inside him gave him guts to withstand his harshest critics. And I am sure it was also the grit he showed at the end of his life as he continued to write and lecture although he suffered from ALS.
As brutal as he could be to others, he was kind and encouraging to his students. He taught a course on twentieth century France at NYU’s Maison Française. Most of the master’s candidates at the Maison had no background in history and many were not in a humanities graduate program, but working toward some sort of professional degree. The level of discourse in the class must have tested his patience, but he never showed it. One classmate belonged to a Young Trotskyst group and mentioned Marx every time she raised her hand. We rolled our eyes, but even though Tony had broken with Marxism years before, he always let her speak, and then gently explained where her thinking went wrong.
I was never close to Tony. I think the reason was that the central drama of his life was the search for something to replace the totalizing idea systems that he had embraced as a young person (Marxism and Zionism). This was an intellectual project that I did not share. I am not fascinated by politics and have never been held captive by ideas. In direct contrast to Tony, my fundamental stance toward the world is one of agnosticism. I am not as engaged in the world as he was, and I know it made my life easier, if less meaningful, than his. Tony’s intellectual journey did however give him an incredible insight into the twentieth century. The Enlightenment belief that there was a political or social order that could drive us forward to human perfection was struck down in the trenches of the Great War and in Auschwitz. Its death knell was the end of the Soviet Union and ideals of Communism. We no longer seek out monolithic belief systems, since they have brought us misery, but neither do we see politics as a moral enterprise, and, in Tony’s view, we have been adrift ever since.
I had my dissertation topic rejected four years into the doctoral program (it was a poorly thought-out thing on travel writing that did not pose a remotely interesting historical question). I grew frustrated with graduate school and went to see Tony in his office on Washington Square. He launched into some problem solving on the spot, and, riffing on my subject, came up with a thesis topic that, had I bothered to take dictation, probably would have won me a grant. But I was fed up with school, and broke, so I told him that I was quitting. I don’t know what I expected. Did I think he was going to beg me to stay? He was annoyed that he had invested time in a student who chose to chuck the degree more than halfway through. He just shrugged. I flounced out of his office and thought I would never see him again.
I did see him again, some years later, at my dissertation defense. I went to work in finance, and ended up completing the doctorate in my spare time under the supervision of the French economic historian Herrick Chapman (to whom I will be forever grateful for his willingness to work with someone who would never be a full-time academic). NYU requires five readers, so I called on Tony to be on the committee. At the time, I did not see the presumption in my request. He turned up that day in a foul mood. He began the proceedings by pointing out a foolish mistake I made early in the text (I think I called Jules Guesde an anarcho-syndicalist) and then spent the rest of the hour silently conveying his boredom and disgust. Clearly it was payback for my having been ungrateful and rude to him. But he let me pass. There was a reception for me at the Maison Française afterwards, which he did not attend. I never saw him again.
As I said, Tony was a rough guy, and when he was done with you, he made sure you knew it. I had seen him do it with other people, so it did not surprise me. At the time, I dismissed him as a jerk, but in hindsight, I probably deserved what I got. I have yet to complete the inventory of everything he taught me. It will probably take a lifetime of reading history to do it.
Posted on | April 15, 2012 | No Comments
“You’re reading that again?” asks my husband. “Why?” He’s one of those people who buys an album and enjoys it on first listen, and then puts it away and listens to something else. As a teenager, whenever I bought a new record, I played it over and over until the needle had worn its grooves and it had become a flea in the ear. Not surprising then that I re-read books. A lot. I think I have read Madame Bovary about six times. What’s peculiar to my husband (and maybe others, too) is the quality of my re-readings. It’s mostly not Flaubert.
I’m not one of those show-offy people who says in passing that they spent the summer re-reading say, The Federalist Papers. Jack Thurston of the Guardian points out that this is really just a way of saying I’m so clever that I’ve read all the great works and am having to start over again. “After all, no one talks about re-reading Tintin.”
Except with me it may well be Tintin. Pulp novels, trash biographies, pony books from childhood…What is the reason for re-reading them when I have only read Don Quixote once?
I loved Don Quixote, or rather I did not love it, I admired it. There are books you love and books you admire. Some books you admire can also be loved: Proust, Flaubert, and Mavis Gallant come to mind. Nonfiction, too: I have read Milosz, Orwell, and Primo Levi over again as well. But there are books that you read again and again for no other reason than that you love them. I don’t think any of the books I love actually stink; it’s just that it is hard to defend dipping into Mildred Pierce yet again when there are so classic novels that I have never read, and so many new, worthy books coming out that I know I will never get around to reading.
Why then to I keep turning back to my old favorites? Barthes talks about the pleasure of the text, the ‘readerly text’ that does not ‘challenge the reader’s position as a subject,’ a text that reminds me that I am a reader, and that this is what I am reading.
There is another reason. Never mind Barthes and his fancy-pants phenomenology, the truth is I am a lazy reader, and do not like to work very hard when I read. Re-reading is always easier than reading something the first time; it’s always less work. It feels like a comfy chair. No wonder I turn to an old favorite when I want to have a snack of toast, or soak in the tub.
Why do I read if I do not feel like working? Why not watch TV until the feeling passes and then dive into Finnegan’s Wake? The philosophy major at my house tells me that for Aristotle the purpose of any work we do is leisure, and reading is an act of ‘contemplative leisure,’ in which we are perfect and perfect in the present. We read for many purposes, so this is not exactly true (I spend much of my workday reading). But the point remains that if perfection is doing something that is not for the sake of other things but an end in itself, then what could be more perfect than losing yourself in a well-loved and familiar novel for no particular end– after all, you cannot even say that you are reading for the plot.
There is something pleasurable about skimming along to a well-remembered scene, an entertaining bit of dialogue known by heart, the comfort of knowing what’s coming next. Fiction characters become old friends, and, unlike human friends, never change. They continue to charm and delight the way they did the first time. The best-loved books have something on the page that loses you in the story and brings back the pleasure of the first reading all over again.
Barthes also said that while one may experience pleasure in a ”readerly’ text, only the ‘writerly’ text can bring bliss. But as I sink into a hot bubble bath and crack open Edie: An American Biography and begin to read again about Edie Sedgwick doing the watusi on her leather rhino, Wallow, I think: bliss.